The rise and fall of Deportivo La Coruña

The rise and fall of Deportivo La Coruña

“They were big,” wrote Sid Lowe of Deportivo de La Coruña in 2011. “For a while, they were amongst the biggest.” How quickly we forget.

We forget a team from the provincial north-west of Spain that didn’t just catch up with Barcelona and Real Madrid, but often surpassed them; a team with Valerón, Makaay, Rivaldo and Bebeto among its alumni. We forget a team that won major titles and won them in style. We forget that once upon a time, they called Deportivo La Coruña “Super Depor”, and for good reason.

Now they are no longer Super Depor; just plain old Depor.

In 2004, the only thing that stood between Depor and the Champions League final was Pierluigi Collina’s whistle and a Derlei penalty. That semi-final match, against Porto, was their opportunity to grasp true greatness, and they missed it. Seven years later, they exited the Spanish top flight with a whimper, having mutated from perennial title-contenders and European powerhouse into mid-table nonentity and, ultimately, a dispirited, relegated rabble.

On the night in 2011 that a home defeat to Valencia condemned Depor to a first season in the Segunda since 1991, two old stagers, the once-masterful Juan Carlos Valerón and the evergreen Manuel Pablo, looked on in despair as confirmation of their relegation came in the form of a breakaway Soldado goal.

Back in May 2004, the two were equally as devastated following that defeat to José Mourinho’s Porto, but could hardly have imagined they would be there to witness their club’s subsequent nadir. Somewhere in between routing AC Milan 4-0 in the Riazor during that famous European campaign and slumping to that insipid defeat against Valencia, it all went downhill for Depor.

In 2011, the duo were the only reminder of Super Depor, a pair of relics slowly decaying in the company of a less illuminated generation. Then 39, Manuel Pablo, who had been on the club’s books since the year before Depor won their first LaLiga title in 2000, still served as captain of the club.

As for Valerón, he knew what it felt like to be part of a great institution sinking without a trace. This was the second cataclysmic relegation that the playmaker experienced first-hand: he had joined Deportivo from Atlético Madrid in 2000, the year Los Rojiblancos waved goodbye to the Primera. In many ways, the fall of Valerón’s Depor reflected the plight of Valerón’s Atleti, a side brought low by the bacchanalian Jesús Gil era.

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Although players like Valerón and Manuel Pablo were vital to Deportivo during both the good and bad days, the phenomenon that was Super Depor started and finished with Augusto César Lendoiro, Depor’s very own mild-mannered Gil Lite. “He touched the sky with them,” noted El País in 2009, “rescued them after almost 20 years in the second division to win a league (2000), two cups (1995 and 2002) and stroll through Europe. He did so at the expense of generating a debt of about 160 million.” True, Lendoiro brushed the heavens with Deportivo, but he could not arrest their fall back to earth.

He and his club had begun their ascent together in the 1980s. Up to that point, Depor had been a relatively anonymous provincial club. A large proportion of their history had revolved around the Segunda División, while the majority of their seasons in the top tier had been mediocre in terms of final positions. But upon promotion to the Primera in ’91, for the first time since 1973, things changed rapidly for Depor. Previously focused mainly on the club’s financial stabilisation and the improvement of infrastructure, Lendoiro began to invest more significantly in the playing staff.

In came Bebeto, Donato and Mauro Silva, and eventually the likes of Rivaldo, Djalminha, Kostadinov, Begiristain and Julio Salinas. Little expense was spared, and heads were raised across Spain. Lendoiro’s expansive recruitment, combined with the cunning of the club’s Galician manager, Arsenio Iglesias, known as ‘The Fox of Arteixo’, had an almost immediate effect.

Runners-up in the Primera twice in a row, in 1993 and ’94, the fortunes of this middling club appeared to have been transformed, their status now very firmly nuevo rico. Proof of their arrival in the big time came with a Copa del Rey win in 1995, and a subsequent 5-1 aggregate thrashing of Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup.

Indeed, the team from A Coruña may have won the league in 1994 had Barcelona not incentivised Valencia’s players to make a little extra effort against Depor in a title decider. Ten years before Derlei’s spot-kick broke their hearts again, it was another penalty that denied Depor glory. On this occasion, though, it was a miss by Depor’s Miroslav Đukić that proved crucial, handing Barça the league title in the process. Valencia’s goalkeeper, who saved the shot, danced like a madman in celebration.

By 2011, the year Depor returned to the Segunda, it had emerged in El Confidencial that a number of Valencia players had received a substantial premium from Barça in return for their increased focus on avoiding defeat that day. How ironic that all those years before sealing Depor’s ultimate fall from grace, it was Los Che who wrote the first major hard-luck story of the Super Depor era. By 1998, though, Javier Irureta had arrived.

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‘Jabo’ had a short trip to make when he took over as Depor manager. The season before, he had catapulted local rivals Celta Vigo from lower mid-table to the UEFA Cup placings, but would not go on to manage them in that competition. Depor had finished six spots below Celta and Lendoiro was sufficiently impressed to bring the Basque coach to the Riazor.

Irureta’s Celta were an exciting, well-managed outfit – Jabo was awarded Manager of the Year in 1998 for his exploits in Vigo – boasting luminaries such as Aleksandr Mostovoi, Valeri Karpin and Michel Salgado, and he quickly set about reforming an increasingly sluggish Depor.

Irureta was a man of the north, a coach whose career took place almost entirely north of the Meseta. He once made the famous pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago, a cornerstone of Galician culture, and he understood the soul of that oceanic province. Though a Basque, he became an honorary gallego, indisputably as central to the cult of Depor as the Camino is to Compostela. Even back in ‘98, he’d been around for what seemed like an eternity, furiously chewing his gum on the sidelines since he first took over at Basque outfit Sestao in 1984, the same year Barcelona hired Terry Venables as manager.

Jabo benefited from the fact that, unlike the madcap directors of Real and Barça, Lendoiro allowed his managers to choose their own transfer targets. In 2000, when Real passed up the chance to sign Diego Tristán from Mallorca, up stepped Jabo. The year before, Irureta had brought Roy Makaay back to Spain after the Dutchman captivated the islanders of Tenerife. With him came Víctor and of course Manuel Pablo, and the foundations for a title challenge were laid.

The midfield was always a priority for Irureta. His Depor played a 4-2-3-1 formation, a structure given solidity by a central pyramid of two holding midfielders and an attacking playmaker. A skilful midfielder in his day, Irureta recognised the importance of the engine-room, and for the next seven years at Depor, he built his teams around the double pivot. Whether it was Mauro Silva, Djalminha, Emerson, Sergio González or Aldo Duscher, Jabo’s Depor was never without a solid midfield base.

This allowed Irureta’s creative, attacking players to flourish. Over the years there was the graceful Valerón, the scrambling Víctor, the busy Fran and the explosive Luque, all prompting a succession of bullish, clinical forwards; after Tristán and Makaay in the pecking order came Walter Pandiani. Depor possessed an array of attacking talent, as well as the defensive solidity to support it: the impenetrable Naybet, Andrade and Donato were for so long a barrier to opposition attacks, an often underappreciated part of Depor’s success.

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So it was that when it came to LaLiga, Irureta had the ammunition to finish the job started by Iglesias. Which he did at the second time of asking, in 1999/2000. When Depor’s title came, it was the climax of the narrative begun by Lendoiro just over a decade previously. The behemoths had been overcome, the great capitals of Madrid and Barcelona humbled by the provincials; a victory for decentralisation. Yet, given the resources pumped in by Lendoiro, it wasn’t really a triumph for the little guy, more for the medium guy.

In retrospect, the title win of 2000 proved to be the zenith for the club. Challengers for the next few seasons, Los Blanquiazules couldn’t repeat the feat but consoled themselves by tearing a swathe through European football, culminating in that 2004 semi-final. For many foreign observers, it was Deportivo’s performances in Europe that cemented the legend of the club.

A succession of greats were vanquished – Milan, Juve, and Man Utd all fell to the Depor sword – and a continent took note. These upstarts from the wet part of Iberia were worth watching. But it didn’t last. It couldn’t last.

“My big mistake was not to have sold players when I could,” Lendoiro noted in 2009. “But the illusion was winning titles. Now I know I have to find solutions to problems arising from that goal, but as the Riazor Blues sing: ‘How am I going to forget that Deportivo won the league if it’s the best thing that happened in my life?’”

As it turned out, Lendoiro’s “big mistake” was rather more serious than that. Like so many sugar daddies do, he had overstretched his resources. Within a year of Derlei’s penalty, Jabo was gone and so was the money. In its place was a “youth policy”, which was more a euphemism for an absence of transfer funds than a noble ambition to develop local talent.

Writing of Deportivo as far back as 2005, Sid Lowe noted: “It’s hard to avoid the feeling that this is the end of an era at Riazor, to escape the sense of stagnation, boredom and decline. It’s all gone flat.” We know now that the money-men had pulled the plug. One by one, the stars left or retired: by 2008, Luque, Makaay, Víctor, Mauro Silva, Djalminha, Pandiani, Capdevila, Duscher, Scaloni, Coloccini, Naybet, Donato, Andrade and Fran had all come and gone.

Depor’s playing squad was decimated in a matter of years, while Jabo himself was trumped out in 2005, amid constant rumours of player revolt and dissatisfaction with his methods. The unstable Djalminha had even gone so far as to head-butt him. Truthfully, the players outgrew both the club and Jabo. The Basque slipped into semi-retirement, unable to regain the heights reached in Galicia either in Andalusia or Aragon during subsequent spells with Betis and Zaragoza.

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Meanwhile, Real and Barça had fluffed up their fur, untucked their tails from between their legs, and reasserted their dominance. Depor backed down without much of a fight, cowed into mediocrity by financial restraints and administrative apathy. But when relegation came, the pain was not dulled by foresight. The descent was gradual, tangible as far back as 2005, but the despair of hitting rock-bottom was no less severe.

“Of course, [during] these years at the helm of the presidency we have also made mistakes,” said Lendoiro upon his resignation from the Depor board in 2014. “We have never denied [that]. And for them we apologise, but we assure you that everything [was] always done with the firm objective of seeing our Deportivo [go] as high as possible.”

That Depor had flown high was undeniable. The problem was that, like Icarus, they’d strayed just a little too close to the sun.

Demotion from LaLiga in 2011 has seen them become a yo-yo club, promoted in 2012, only to be relegated again in 2013 and once more elevated to the top tier for the 2014/15 season. Despite leading for 15 weeks, they came up from the Segunda as runners-up to tiny Eibar. Last season they went back down again after finishing in a lowly 18th.

Although a return to the glory days looks unlikely in the near future, Depor must consolidate their status in the Primera División in the future if they are to return to anything resembling a position of prominence in Spanish football. They do so with a squad bereft of the outstanding individuals they once possessed.

With Lendoiro gone, Depor now is a much more humble beast. Absent is the braggadocio of the millennial era, replaced by a muted acceptance of a return to provincial status. But with that eager self-confidence, which so defined Depor at their peak, went the star quality, the flair that endeared them to so many.

Lest we forget, however, this once-again modest club briefly rose above its station. The only problem was that they paid dearly for it. The Super Depor story is one of ambition, excess and recrimination. It’s the classic rise-and-fall parable, the return of the prodigal son played out on the extremities of Iberia. The hope is that, like the younger son in that famous Biblical verse, Depor have learned their lesson, and that others embrace their return. “Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

By Luke Ginnell @HeavyFirstTouch